Thursday, December 17, 2009

Documenting Genocide in Guatemala

National Security Archive Update, December 2, 2009

Operation Sofia: Documenting Genocide in Guatemala

For more information contact:
Kate Doyle -

Washington, DC, December 2, 2009 - The Guatemalan army, under the direction of military ruler Efraín Ríos Montt, carried out a deliberate counterinsurgency campaign in the summer of 1982 aimed a massacring thousands of indigenous peasants, according to a comprehensive set of internal records presented as evidence to the Spanish National Court and posted today by National Security Archive on its Web site. The files on "Operation Sofia" detail official responsibility for what the 1999 UN-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission determined were "acts of genocide against groups of Mayan people."

The National Security Archive's Kate Doyle presented the documentation as evidence in the international genocide case, which is under investigation by Judge Santiago Pedraz in Madrid. Ms. Doyle testified today before Judge Pedraz on the authenticity of the documents, which were obtained from military intelligence sources in Guatemala. Earlier this year, Defense Minister Gen. Abraham Valenzuela González claimed that the military could not locate the documents nor turn them over to a judge in Guatemala, as ordered by the Guatemalan Constitutional Court in 2008.

After months of analysis, which included evaluations of letterheads and signatures on the documents and comparisons to other available military records, Doyle said, "we have determined that these records were created by military officials during the regime of Efraín Ríos Montt to plan and implement a 'scorched earth' policy on Mayan communities in El Quiché. The documents record the military's genocidal assault against indigenous populations in Guatemala."

The appearance of the original "Operation Sofía" documents provides the first public glimpse into secret military files on the counterinsurgency campaign that resulted in massacres of tens of thousands of unarmed Mayan civilians during the early 1980s, and displaced hundreds of thousands more as they fled the Army's attacks on their communities. The records
contain explicit references to the killing of unarmed men, women and children, the burning of homes, destruction of crops, slaughter of animals and indiscriminate aerial bombing of refugees trying to escape the violence.

Among the 359 pages of original planning documents, directives, telegrams, maps, and hand-written patrol reports is the initial order to launch the operation issued on July 8, 1982, by Army Chief of Staff Héctor Mario López Fuentes. The records make clear that Operation Sofía was executed as part of the military strategy of Guatemala's de facto president,
Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, under the command and control of the country's senior military officers, including then Vice Minister of Defense Gen. Mejía Víctores. Both men are defendants in the international genocide case in front of the Spanish Court.

The posting today includes a complete inventory of the Operation Sofia documents, as well as photographs from the Ixil region taken in 1982 by photojournalist and human rights advocate, Jean-Marie Simon.

For more information, visit the Archive Web site:

THE NATIONAL SECURITY ARCHIVE is an independent non-governmental research institute and library located at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. The Archive collects and publishes declassified documents acquired through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). A tax-exempt public charity, the Archive receives no U.S. government funding; its budget is supported by publication royalties and donations from foundations and individuals.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Governor General Celebrates International Human Rights Day in Guatemala

SITRAPETEN Workers Evicted from Central Plaza on the International Day for Human Rights
Guatemala City, December 11, 2009
By Jackie McVicar

It is ironic that while Canada’s Governor General Michaëlle Jean was
replacing the white rose to commemorate 24 hours of “peace” in
Guatemala inside the country’s Constitutional Palace, 150 National
Civil Police agents were outside violently evicting the SITRAPETEN
workers from their make-shift homes in the Central Plaza. Employees of
the Peten Distributors Workers´ Union (SITRAPETEN) – distributors of
Agua Salvavida - were fired after creating the SITRAPETEN union in May
2008 and have been occupying the Central Plaza since September 2008 as
a form of peaceful protest to demand that their labour rights be
respected. The International Human Rights Accompaniment Project in
Guatemala (ACOGUATE) has been accompanying the workers ever since and
according to their blog, the workers have “been subjected to attempts
to bribe them to leave the union. In February this year, there was a
court order for their reinstatement. To date, the order has not been
respected.” Workers have not received any payment since they were
illegally fired over a year and a half ago.

When Mexico’s TV Azteca announced that it would be bringing “La
Academia” (The Academy, a Mexican version of American Idol) to
Guatemala for a live performance on December 13, Alvaro Arzu’s
municipal government decided to clean up the streets and get rid of
the strikers who set up shelters made out of laminate, covered with
banners and demanded justice. The strikers had legal permission to be
there and were carrying out their constitutional right to peaceful
resistance. “That’s what I told them [the police]. When a businessman
comes to have an event and all of this [the protest] is about to come
to light, now you come to evict us. It’s simply for this reason,”
expressed Edwin Enrique Álvarez Guevara, Secretary General of the
Union, in an interview moments before the police started moving in on
the SITRAPETEN workers. Alvaro Arzu is the famed “President of Peace”
who signed the 1996 Peace Accords in Guatemala with the Guatemalan
National Revolutionary Unity, ending 36 years of civil war in the
country. There are allegations that he has been trying to get the
workers out of the plaza for months by giving them a bad name through
print media and television reports. It is believed that the request to
evict the workers from the plaza came directly from Arzu’s office.

On the night of December 9, a municipal judge and various police
officers tried to evict the SITRAPETEN strikers. Nonetheless, the
workers were aware of their rights and subsequently demanded that they
be respected. As such, they were able to hold off the eviction until
the next day when members of popular and civil society organizations
rallied to show support around 12pm. Legally, an eviction must be carried out between 6am to 6pm.

In the hour and a half that ensued, the anti-riot squad circled the park
while other officers advanced toward the 15 or so workers who were
doing everything they could to protect themselves and their belongings
from being destroyed. As the non-armed workers and supporters gathered
around the final standing structure arm-in-arm in defense yelling,
“JUSTICE!” police officials shot tear gas and other toxic substances,
forcing many to leave to seek medical attention.

Despite the interventions of the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (PDH)
and the Presidential Commission for Human Rights (COPREDEH), the
police, armed with automatic assault riffles and dozens of canisters
of tear gas and other highly toxic agents, carried out the violent
eviction without the legal order of the Presiding Judge that led to at
least three people injured.

According to a press release by the Human Rights Convergence members
of SITRAPETEN were, “violently evicted with a disproportionate use of
force by members of the National Civil Police (PNC) accompanied by
Municipal Traffic Police (PMT) who, with their trucks, took not only
the precarious shelters that they have upkept, but also all their
personal belongings.” Following the eviction, the SITRAPETEN workers
stayed on site, while supporters gathered around. Hours later, around
11:30pm, following a Christmas gala hosted by the President’s wife
inside the Constitutional Palace, police agents returned and once
again proceeded to carry out another illegal eviction, using tear gas
to expel the union workers and once again confiscating all of their
possessions. SITRAPETEN workers have relocated in front of the
Cathedral in the plaza and have denounced the illegal actions taken
against them to the Public Prosecutor’s Office and office of the Human
Rights Ombudsman.

Given the fact that SITRAPETEN’s battle is with one of Guatemala’s
richest families, the Castillo family, and its Castillo Brothers
Corporation which is a holding of 82 companies primarily focused on
food and beverage and entertainment, it is not surprising that little
has been reported in the local printed press. Almost no coverage has
been given to the strikers since May 2008 and much of what has been
covered are misleading reports about illegal invaders.

Meanwhile, on her last day in Guatemala, the Governor General’s first
visit this morning was with Mayor Alvaro Arzu, where Michaëlle Jean
was presented the “Keys of the City” in a ceremony closed to the
press. La Academia will go ahead as planned on Sunday.

Her Excellency will finish her tour of the region following her visit
to Costa Rica on December 15.

See pictures by the Anti-imperialist Block at:
For a 3 minutes video by Comunicarte about the violent eviction, see:

For a backgrounder in English:

For ACOGUATE reports see:

Justice: Transparency or Incarceration?


150 years for forced disappearance a precedent, families not satisfied

by Valerie Croft

TORONTO—An historic verdict was reached in Guatemala’s first tried case of forced disappearance, leading to the conviction of ex-military commissioner Felipe Cusanero Coj*, with a sentence of 150 years in prison.

Eleven witness testimonies accompanied evidence including bones from clandestine graves found around the military compound, and historical records and reports of the nature of forced disappearance. On August 31, 2009, President Judge Walter Paulino Jiminez Texaj, representing the Criminal Court of the Department of Chimaltenango ruled that Cusanero’s “innocence was destroyed,” and sentenced him to 25 years in prison for each of the six cases being tried.

Charges were brought against him April, 2003 for crimes he committed between 1982 and 1984 while acting as Military Commissioner in the region. The Centre for Legal Action in Human Rights (CALDH) and the Association for Families of the Detained-Disappeared of Guatemala (FAMDEGUA) began the process as joint plaintiffs to the witnesses.

Several years later, the case made it to court March, 2008. The trial was stalled, however, after Cusanero claimed his constitutional right not to be tried retroactively was being violated, since his crimes were committed before Guatemala recognized forced disappearance as illegal in 1996.

After a lengthy delay in Cusanero's case, the Constitutional Court made an historic ruling when it declared that since the very nature of forced disappearance makes it an ongoing crime, Cusanero should be fully tried for it. (Since no bodies have been recovered, and Cusanero refuses to give further information about what happened and the whereabouts of the bodies, the victims are still considered “disappeared.”) The Court ruled that it did not matter when they were disappeared, but more importantly that the crime was continuing—it was being committed in the present.

Following the verdict's reading at the Constitutional Court, the case returned to the Court in Chimaltenango, where Jiminez Texaj concluded there was sufficient evidence to lead to a conviction of forced disappearance.

The implications in the judge's conclusion are deep. When the 1996 Peace Accords were signed, political amnesty was given to all military members for crimes they had committed during the war. (Without this clause the accords wouldn’t have been signed.) However, crimes against humanity—such as forced disappearance—are outside this amnesty law and can be tried.

Cusanero became the first person in the country to be tried for a crime against humanity. At the same time, he was a low-level military commissioner. Rios Montt, one of the authors of the genocide, enjoys political immunity by being a member of Congress.

Although many human rights organizations are claiming this to be a major step forward in the struggle for social justice in Guatemala, the witnesses' reality is much different.

For many, the hope in bringing the case forward was to find out information about their loved ones. “How is it important to us if he goes to prison?” asked Hilarion Lopez, father of one of the disappeared and a witness in the case. “We have always wanted to know where our loved ones are and what happened to them. But he never told us.”

Lack of information about those disappeared leaves families imagining horrors of rape and torture, and, on the flip-side, leaves room for the (unfounded) hope that their loved ones may still be alive. The nature of the crime creates such a degree of uncertainty that families are incapable of moving past or healing from its trauma. Particularly in cultures where proper burial rites are of extreme importance, the inability to lay individuals to rest leaves families in a perpetual state of paralysis and grief.

In a statement made during the reading of the verdict, Jiminez said, “For all of the cultures and religions present in Guatemala, it is almost inconceivable not to grant dignity to the deceased; it violates the dignity of everyone. For the Mayans, this phenomenon is of particular importance due to the central relevance in their culture of the active link between the living and the dead.”

He continued by describing the findings of a report made by the Guatemalan Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH), stating that the lack of information about the disappeared continues to be an open sore in the country. “The CEH considers locating and exhuming the clandestine graves where the bodies are buried to be an act of justice and reparation, while being a fundamental step in the road to reconciliation."

Echoing these sentiments in a news conference the day after the verdict, Lopez stated, “[Cusanero] should ask forgiveness of the people of San Martin, of the community of Choatalum. I am really upset because my son is still not returned to me. And I want justice....I want to bury him in the cemetery so that I can bring him flowers and candles.”

Despite the seemingly successful verdict, it doesn’t go without notice by the witnesses that what means most—information—will likely die with Cusanero in prison.

Even so, the verdict and declaration by the Constitutional Court open doors to the possibility of trying other crimes against humanity which took place during the armed conflict.

According to representatives from CALDH, the legal organization representing the witnesses in the Choatalum trial, several other cases that have gone through the courts in Guatemala should have been tried as forced disappearance. Instead they were reduced to charges of kidnapping. Kidnapping is a much less severe crime with a maximum sentence of eight years, compared to 40 for forced disappearance.

Judges often try the accused for kidnapping instead of forced disappearance, says a representative from CALDH, because it won’t implicate the State. “[It is easier to say that] it was just some senseless members of the military who were responsible for each individual crime, and that it doesn’t have anything to do with the subsequent military leader, or the whole chain of command.”

According to CALDH, kidnapping can be an individual crime, whereas to be classified as forced disappearance, proof of a systematic plan, implemented by the state to use forced disappearance as a terror tactic, is required. The fact that the State has been implicated in a Guatemalan Court for its role in creating and facilitating a culture of forced disappearance might have widespread implications for the intellectual authors of the genocide.

Written with files from Amanda Kistler, an international human rights observer with the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA). Amanda currently lives in Guatemala City. Valerie Croft is a freelance journalist living in Toronto. She worked as an International Accompanier in 2008, in the department of Chimaltenango.

* Cusanero was the military commissioner in the community of Choatalum, in the municipality of San Martin Jilotepeque in Chimaltenango, during Guatemala’s internal armed conflict that took place between 1960 and 1996. The conflict was characterized by widespread massacres, scorched earth policies, the forming of civil patrol units, and genocide against the Mayan indigenous peoples. In addition, the use of “forced disappearance” was employed as a common terror tactic.

Forced disappearance is the kidnapping of an individual by military or paramilitary forces after which they are often raped or tortured, and eventually murdered. By selecting individuals arbitrarily, it heightens a climate of fear and uncertainty. A UN-sponsored Truth Commission found that 45,000 people were disappeared in Guatemala during the armed conflict.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Extrajudicial Assassination of Fausto Otzin, Indigenous Lawyer and Human Rights Defender

by Jackie McVicar, Guatemala City

Fausto Otzín’s murder on October 18, 2009, in San Juan Comalapa, Chimaltenango was a sharp blow to the Indigenous and Human Rights community of Guatemala, to which Otzín belonged and advocated for. Only 32 years old, Otzín had been named the first Executive Director of the Association of Mayan Attorneys and according to an Action Alert emitted by Human Rights First, “was heavily involved in promoting the rights of indigenous communities and victims of Guatemala’s 36-year armed conflict.”

The racism, discrimination and inequality that fueled Guatemala’s 36-year civil war has not ceased to exist, putting advocates like Fausto Otzín in grave danger for the work they do defending the rights of indigenous people. Speaking the truth, and being a catalyst for victims to seek justice does not go unnoticed in Guatemala, where the military continues to play a strong role, both behind the scenes and, most blatantly, in public offices, where they operate with immunity from the crimes of the past. In its October bi-monthly report, UDEFEGUA, the Human Rights Defenders’ Protection Unit of Guatemala, states that “Given the seriousness and cost of Otzín´s muder, and the savagery with which they killed in Comalapa, this past October 18th, a person with such capacities, a humanistic nature, and his potential to help Guatemala, appears to be incomparable to other cases carried out since the end of the internal armed conflict. ”

Fausto Otzín was attacked not far from his family’s home. When volunteer firefighters and locals finally found his body after disappearing overnight, there were signs of severe abuse and suffering. He had been attacked with a machete to his head and stabbed in his back; there was severe bruising to his face and body. Otzín could not withstand the wounds and died shortly after being found.

Otzín had spent his academic and professional life promoting the rights of indigenous communities. According to Human Rights First’s Action Alert, “he founded a Mayan student association and helped to create the Law Institute of Indigenous People...He was part of a student movement demanding justice for the mass atrocities committed during Guatemala’s armed conflict, in which members of his family were disappeared... He also provided legal advice to communities in San Juan Sacatepéquez after they were criminalized for opposing a local cement factory.”

This is not the first time that Indigenous lawyers in Guatemala have been attacked. Otzín and other lawyers with the Association of Mayan Attorneys have been threatened, criminalized and black-listed for their work to promote indigenous rights and protection of indigenous territory in Guatemala. In 2008, the Association was accused without warrant of being the intellectual authors of an extra-judicial assassination, and had an erroneous criminal case launched against it. This followed events in the municipality of San Juan Sacatepéquez, where local communities had been organizing against the installation of a cement mine and plant owned by one of the country’s biggest industries, Cementos Progresos. Members of San Juan Sacatepéquez organized a community referendum through local government structures, though to date, is not considered binding by the Constitutional Court of Guatemala.

Lawyers with the Association of Mayan Attorneys had been offering legal accompaniment in the case of San Juan Sacatepéquez since 2006. In a letter to Guatemala’s Attorney General in September 2008, the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission from Washington DC states, “... over 40 indigenous community leaders with no participation in violent activities have been arrested [in San Juan Sacatepéquez] – apparently for their communities’ opposition to the cement factory. We oppose the arrest of peaceful community leaders as a way to stifle community protest and we are concerned about the enactment of martial law as a first resort to social unrest. We are also concerned by the reported human rights violations committed by members of the National Civilian Police (PNC) prior to and during the period of martial law.”

Many people work a life-time to accomplish what Fausto Otzín completed in his short life. The indigenous people of San Juan Sacatepéquez, and others who suffer from the systemic oppression in Guatemala, and those who fight for justice following the internal armed conflict will not forget his commitment. Some will say Fausto was too bright - unfortunately, his courageous work and dedication to creating a new Guatemala of justice did not go unnoticed by his enemies who committed the ultimate attack to keep him silent. Fausto’s legacy is a challenge for a generation of young professionals who dare to fight for a change.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Pedraz Executes Search Warrant for Member of Guatemalan Military for 1545 Deaths (translated by J. McVicar)

El País, M.A. – Madrid, Spain, November 4, 2009

Santiago Pedraz, Judge of the Spanish National Court, ordered the international search and capture and imprisonment of Guatemala Captain José Antonio Solares on Monday. Solares is charged as organizer of the killings of Rio Negro [Rabinal] executed May 13, 1982. These killings, according to the Judge, “assumed the execution, torture, imprisonment and forced disappearances of 1,545 people,” of Maya Achi ethnicity.

Pedraz recalls that Solares is charged for the same acts in a criminal process in Guatemala, where a court ordered his detention in 2003. But this order “has never been executed by the Guatemalan authorities, which has allowed him to mock the judicial system.”

The search warrant, ordered by Pedraz, came at the request of Nobel Peace Laureate Rigoberta Menchú, supported by the Public Prosecutor. Ex-dictators Efraín Ríos Montt and Óscar Humberto Mejía who governed between 1982 and 1986 are charged for crimes against humanity, torture and kidnapping in the legal process.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Guatemalan activist brings international lens to local conference

By Colleen Kimmett May 25, 2009 02:19 pm,

VANCOUVER - A weekend conference on community engagement hosted a surprise international guest -- Aniseto Lopez, a Guatemalan who flew to Vancouver to attend a Goldcorp annual general meeting on Friday.

He dropped by The Great Turning, An Unconference to be The Change, to talk about the plight of his own community, half a world away.

Approximately 300 participants and presenters at the conference listened raptly as Lopez talked about how Goldcorp's mine in San Miguel, Ixtahuacan is harming his people and land. Afterwards, some came up to thank him, in hesitant Spanish, and apologize for Canada's role in the project.

Goldcorp, a Vancouver-based corporation, is enjoying first-quarter profits that are up 27 per cent from this time last year.

In 2007, The Tyee reported on the local controversy about its Marlin project in Guatemala, and according to reports, Lopez wasn't the only person who brought complaints and concerns to the Goldcorp's shareholders here.

"The company is destroying our lands, our forests, contaminating the water and violating our rights to be consulted," Lopez told The Tyee, through translator Jackie McVicar of Breaking the Silence.

"We want them to suspend their operations, to pay for the damanges that have been done and to leave, to leave us be and leave us alone."

Lopez said he felt "strengthened and empowered" after speaking at the conference, and emphasized the need for international solidarity on environmental issues.

The conference was hosted by Be The Change Earth Alliance, a non-profit society focused on helping individuals make sustainable lifestyle changes, and get involved in their communities.

The "unconference" took a somewhat unorthodox approach. Thirty presenters moved between tables and spoke about various subjects, and then delegates joined in the discussion. Topics included community gardens, oil tankers, the Gateway project, green building, justice and diet.

The idea behind the conference is to have these "circle talks" continue in people's living rooms, said executive director Maureen Jack-LaCroix.

"We're trying to create a citizen engagement program that helps people stay in dialogue...and support each other in changing our behaviours," she said.

"We're taking a psychological approach. This is what I call a mind shift."

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Press Release and Tour Details: Maria Dolores

Maria Dolores Itzep, indigenous Guatemalan

lawyer will be touring the Maritimes

From March 21st to April 5th, 2009, the Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking the Silence Network (BTS) will be hosting a tour by Maria Dolores Itzep an indigenous lawyer from Guatemala.

Maria Dolores will be talking with university classes in Sackville, N.B., Charlottetown and Fredericton, and will be speaking to the public in Sackville, N.B., Bridgewater and Halifax.

Please see for the full details. If you would like to speak with Maria Dolores please call Janelle at 902-453-6191.

Maria Dolores Itzep is a lawyer with the Community Legal Centre in Rabinal, Guatemala.
As an indigenous Achi woman raised in the community, she has dedicated her legal career to working with survivors of human rights abuses that took place in this region during Guatemala’s internal armed conflict.

The Legal Centre provides free legal services to those seeking justice for human rights abuses, land conflicts, and cases of violence against women. Maria Dolores is involved with bringing cases before the Inter-American Human Rights Court and is also representing the Achi people in the genocide case being carried out in Spain.

Since 2007, she has also been responsible for bringing cases forward to the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights in Washington.


Fri. March 20 Flight with the Interns, to Tatamagouche with KATHRYN

Sat. March 21 Orientation in Tatamagouche with Jackie, Kathryn, Janelle confirmed to Antigonish late afternoon and staying with Jeanette Fecteau and Clem
Wyanne will ask Terry and Sandra over Sat. evening to provide translation while Jackie is with the St. FX re-entry gathering

Sun. March 22 tour of Antigonish and area. Potluck in the evening at Jane Moseley's, with informal sharing after supper.

Mon. March 23 Morning - visit to Mik'maq community near Antigonish (Afton).
Afternoon - informal visit to Antigonish Women's Centre.

Evening - speak to a smalll seminar class on indigenous justice.
*Yvette Michaud drives to Antigonish Mon. afternoon, and will also need to be billeted. Yvette takes her to Sackville and then on to PEI

Tues. March 24 To Sackville NB Speak at Mount Allison following showing of Rainmakers video (others can use this as well) (LEAH HUFF responsible)

Wed./Thurs. March 25/26 to PEI

Fri. March 27 to Tata – BTS AGM (YVETTE, MARGIE) Yvette will be able to accompany MD at the AGM and Margie has arranged to bring MD to the BTS AGM

Sun., March 29 Travel to Fredericton after the AGM with Jackie, stay at Judy’s

Jackie will then be available to accompany MD throughout the rest of her trip.

Mon. March 30th Fredericton

Tues. March 31st Fredericton – talk with law class at noon. (JUDY)

Wed. April 1 Halifax (JANELLE and MARIAN)
MD and Jackie can stay at Yvette’s and Yvette can also drive them around and will host a potluck and talk

Thurs. April 2 event at Bridgewater High School

Fri. April 3rd Halifax

Sat. April 4 meeting with law/Dal Legal Aid? (Emily) evaluation in Halifax (JACKIE)

Sun., April 5th Flight from Halifax to Washington (JANELLE, YVETTE, JACKIE)

Monday, April 6/7/8th Marie Dolores has an audience with the Human Rights Court

Thurs., April 9th – Maria Dolores visits University of Texas in Austin

Sat. April 11th- back to Guatemala

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Reflection by BTS Intern Becky McMillan‏

"The seed is life, it is a gift from mother earth, and is sacred, for that reason there are ceremonies and there we share with our neighbours, so that mother earth gives us abundance, for that reason there are many practices and rituals for the seed. As much for corn as for the other seeds that are sown in the milpa."

Delfina Asig (translation)

It has been suggested that in regions where the diversity in nature is the highest so too is cultural diversity. This makes sense. As humans evolved a spectrum of plant and animal life would have nurtured the body and inspired the imagination. In turn, humans shaped their surroundings, helping to create complex agroforestry systems. Nowhere is this relationship more clearly demonstrated, perhaps, than in the tiny country of Guatemala which is at once home to three different climate regions with their own characteristic vegetation and over 20 different indigenous Mayan groups. But today just as many of Guatemala´s Mayan traditions are being lost; its rich genetic heritage is under threat…

I always struggle to explain concisely what it is I do in my internship when asked. Or perhaps more accurately what the organizations I am working with – Ijat'z and IMAP (the Mesoamerican Institute of Permaculture) − do, for I sometimes feel my role is more as an active observer than a productive employee. The truth is I spend a lot of time puttering around the seed bank in IMAP and weeding and planting things in Ijat´z but I don´t think that is a very satisfying answer for either party.

Traveling with Colin recently we confronted this predicament frequently and quickly developed prepared standard answers if fellow tourists probed for information on what we were doing in Guate. "Human rights" he would say and I would inarticulately mutter something about plants or farming. Baffled, one traveler asked me how it was that the same organization worked in human rights and agriculture.

To me the link seemed obvious. After all, shouldn't the right to food be one of if not the most basic human right? The statistics would seem to suggest otherwise. One in every six people on the planet suffers permanently from malnutrition and the recent hikes in food prices have condemned some 100 million more people to hunger. For me up until September when I came to Guatemala those people were just numbers on a page. Now, not a day goes by that I don´t hear about how the prices of everything from frijol to fertilizers are going up and the money just doesn´t alcanza.

If people are hungry it must mean that there isn´t enough food for everyone, right? Wrong, as it turns out. According to United Nations estimates, 12 million people – twice the current world's population – could be fed adequately if access to food was regulated in a civilized manner. Hunger, then, is a question of political will, a crime against humanity led by big agribusiness and the governments that protect their interests.

One of the major problems, accounting for some 40-50% of increases in food prices, is agricultural speculation. Basically what happens is investors stockpile agricultural goods, stimulating demand and thus prices, in order to receive better profits. Similarly, excesses of cheap subsidized food in the north have been used to destabilize local production in developing countries (¨dumping¨). Governments worldwide have cut rural development programs as part of structural adjustment policies (conditions imposed on loans which promote the privatization of state institutions) leaving little support for the campesino economy. Meanwhile they have adopted policies in favour of large agroexport companies.

Let's look a little more closely at the case of Guatemala. Thirty years ago Guatemala was a country self sufficient in corn production for human consumption. As anyone who has traveled to Guatemala knows, corn is a dietary staple, especially in rural areas where tortillas are served up los tres tiempos. Corn was an integral part of the traditional Mayan milpa systems (mixed cropping systems widely used before being disrupted by Spanish colonialism – they included the highly nutritious amaranth, Erin´s favourite) and is central to the Mayan cosmovision. According to the Popul Wuh, the Mayan spiritual text, the ancestors were made of corn of different colours.

Today, a dependency on imports of corn and other goods has developed with the adoption of free trade agreements and other neoliberal policies. In June of 2008, for example, in the midst of the "food crisis", Alvaro Colom, president of Guatemala, announced the elimination of import tariffs on a range of basic products to supposedly make products more affordable. Among these goods are yellow corn and corn flour though not sugar which is produced by Guatemala's powerful families, despite the fact that the world price is almost three times lower than the domestic price.

Another type of policy, oddly enough, has been affecting food security worldwide. Climate change regulations in the US and EU have stimulated a market for biofuels, and in many countries, including Guatemala, fertile lands are being converted from food production to the production of plant based energy sources, such as the inefficient corn ethanol. Thus the poor man's food (a Guatemalan minister indicated 10 years ago that planting corn was planting poverty) has become fool's gold.

For me, the most frightening of all, though, is that with the increase of hybrid and genetically modified seeds sold by such multinational corporations as Cargill, Bayer and Monsanto the varieties of corn and other traditional food crops selected over generations by campesinos are at risk.

Hybrid seeds are the result of crosses between two pure varieties in order to strengthen certain characteristics and to improve production. Although these varieties produce high yields in the first season (usually with substantial chemical inputs) due to a phenomenon known as hybrid vigour, seeds saved from hybrid crops will either be sterile or produce plants that are dissimilar to the first generation.

Genetically modified (GM) seeds are seeds which have been enhanced in a laboratory using genes from other species, including animals. The effects of these varieties on human health are not well understood and for this reason they have been banned by some countries. While the seeds saved from GM plants are not (yet) sterile like with hybrid crops, GM varieties can cross-pollinate with heritage varieties nearby, essentially ruining the production of seeds from the heritage crop and forcing producers to buy seeds from the companies that have patented the GM varieties. Apparently, when buying GM seeds a producer has to sign a contract promising that they will not save the seeds.

It is in this context that organizations like Ijat´z and IMAP, are working through native and heritage seed saving, education, and political activism to ensure not just food security (i.e. knowing where the next meal is coming from) but food sovereignty: sustainable, independent, locally controlled and culturally appropriate food production.

And it is in this context that ¨planting stuff¨ can become a powerful political act.

Update by BTS Intern Colin Gusikoski‏

This update will outline both the factual and legal aspects of some of the most pertenant cases the Bufete is working on. The most important aspect of the Bufete's work includes the 2 massive cases pending before the Inter-American Commission. These cases include 228 individuals who tragically lost their lives during the civil armed conflict in Guatemala. Due to the evidentiary requirements, the sheer volume of factual evidence accumulated in support of these petitions is enormous. It is hard to believe one small legal clinic with a lawyer and two auxiliary staff could have accomplished such a feat.

Current Cases

As the petitions before the Iner-American Commission make up the lion's share of the Bufete's current legal work, I will start with these cases. The most recently submitted case affects various massacres in eight separate communities as well as extrajudicial executions and forced disappearances in other places throughout the department of Rabinal. This single petition encompasses 17 separate incidents which resulted in 188 victims. These cases were packaged together as they were part of a coordinated offensive against the Achi indigenous communities in the department of Rabinal, initiated in March of 1982. Moreover, a single petition is in the interests of judicial expedience and procedural economy.

The second case pending before the Commission concerns the Chichupac massacre, submitted to the Inter-American Commission on December 13, 2007. This petition names specific atrocities which were committed in a tighter geographic location around the communities Chichupac and Caserio Xeabaj, both in the municipality of Rabinal. The said atrocities include 33 victims of a massacre in Chichupac committed on January 8, 1982 and 27 forced disappearance or extrajudicial executions committed between the dates August 23, 1981 and December 15, 1984.

Currently the Bufete is also starting preliminary discussions with 256 residents of a large finca (large farm), the rightful owners of which were displaced during the civil war. The current owners of this land were originally from Rabinal and Quiche and purchased a large area of land which amounts to around 40 square kilometres for 639.46 pesos. The displaced community had legal tenure of the same finca since as early as 1906. However, the government resold this land once the original owners had fled the violence and threats to their safety. As both communities are indigenous and indigent, the ideal outcome is for a negotiated settlement of some sort.

Legal Aspects

I thought it would also be helpful to include some of the legal aspects of the petitions before the Inter-American system. There are five stages set out in the American Convention of human rights which any case before the Commission must go through. These stages, in chronological order, are: admissibility; factual investigation (including information provided by both parties); friendly settlement; submission of a provisional report; and, the transmission of the case before the Inter-American Court. Both of the petitions have yet to make it through the admissibility phase of the Commission's procedures. As cases have historically taken an average of three to four years to get to the Court and another three to four years beyond that, justice is still a few years away.

The first petition (Chichupac) was filed with the Commission on December 13, 2007. The government of Guatemala has since contested this application on two main legal grounds. First, the government is objecting to the fact that the petitioners have failed to exhaust domestic remedies as the case is under renewed investigation by the relevant authorities. Second, the government is also contesting the petitioner's decision to try the merits of the cases as a bundle. Despite these objections it is very unlikely that the case will not be admitted by the Commission.

As for the second petition, because it was only submitted in early December there will be some time before it can move forward. The Commission must first redact the security-sensitive information and submit it to the government. The state of Guatemala then has two months to respond, with an ability to request up to three months extension. Given the state's historical treatment of these petitions we can expect that they will again contest this case.

Personal Challenges and Rewards

My experience working with the Bufete has been exceedingly challenging and at the same time intensely rewarding. The most challenging aspect has been dealing with a completely different legal system in a completely different language. Initially, my work seemed impossible as I was dealing with both complexities at the same time. This also made me feel burdensome to my organization as I was not very productive nor helpful. Bit by bit however, I have been able to construct an adequate understanding the case law and I am starting to feel more comfortable with my Spanish. As most cases are reported in English I am able to conduct all my research efficiently and effectively but I also have to convey this information. Perhaps the most challenging part of my job at this stage is condensing my research in an accessible form (ie Spanish memos) for Maria Dolores.

The same elements of my work which give me the most difficulty also give me the most enjoyment. First, it has been extraordinarily stimulating learning about the inter-American system. The variant procedures before the Commission and the Court as well as the jurisdiction and jurisprudence of each are all very fascinating. Second, I enjoy learning another language especially while immersed in a different linguistic and cultural environment. It is fun to be constantly challenged and have such a rewarding learning curve.

In regards to the village I have been placed at, working and living in Rabinal has been nothing but a pleasure. The people here are exceptionally kind and the town itself is surrounded by a beautiful mountainous landscape. There have been challenges related to making friends who are from the area but I am able to interact with them during my many visits to the market and through my involvement in two soccer leagues.

In all, my internship has been a rich and rewarding learning experience. Not only have I deepened my understanding of international human rights, Spanish and Guatemala, I also have a firmer knowledge about myself, humanity and my bearings in the world.

Intern Reflections and Random Guatemala Thoughts...‏

Friends of BTS,

It's hard to believe February is coming to a quick close. Before long, the four Tatamagouche Centre Interns for 2008-2009 will be returning to Nova Scotia after six months of struggling, challenging and rewarding times. We have already had the chance to come together twice with this year's four interns (Becky McMillan - Ija'tz and IMAP San Lucas Toliman; Erin Wolfson - New Hope Foundation Rabinal; Colin Gusikoski Community Legal Clinic Rabinal and Pat Chasse Kaqchikel Presbytery Chimaltenango) during reflection weekends to help explore the role of interns in Guatemala, to better understand the current socio-political context and to share in the frustrations and joys of having the opportunity and privilege of working along side Guatemalans who also find themselves in often precarious times and circumstances. Guatemala continues to be a place of great challenge and great resistance; systems of oppression and discrimination that conjure great injustice face a deep strength and resistence of the indigenous communities that confront these systems in light of the many global (Canadian!) and national factors that relentlessly beg for defeat. Interns struggle with the questions of what is just? For me? My community? And the world? What is my role here? What is development? Community participation? How can I listen and participate in true solidarity?

As the last remaining weeks wind down and the interns prepare for their return to Canada on March 20, we remain unaware if this CIDA funded program will continue in the years to come, though we remain hopefull that this opportunity to deepen understanding and relationships will continue in the ways possible in the time to come. In the meantime, I would like to express my sincere thanks to Kathryn for her vision and sincerity, Caren Weisbart for her support here in Guatemala with the interns (and my own reflections!) and all the past interns who have also struggled, been confused, spoken out, kept silent (when necessary) and experienced the pure joy and humble honour of spending a day in the life of a Guatemalan. Thanks to you for helping lead the path for myself and the others who have come to share in this great learning.

I am looking forward to seeing many of you in Tatamagouche March 27-29! Until then, good care and enjoy the reading!

Abrazos desde Guate,


Thursday, January 22, 2009


Breaking the Silence friends, please put the BTS Annual Meeting Friday, March 27th, 7pm -Sun., March 29th, 1pm (BTS orientation for newcomers, 6:30pm) on your calendar now. And send in the attached registration to Registrar Yvette Michaud before Fri., March 20th. The sooner the better! After March 20th, please register with Tatamagouche Centre, 1-800-218-2220.

This is the only opportunity in the entire year for BTS members and friends to together learn, be inspired, make decisions, build our far-flung community and have fun, so we urge you to attend! We are privileged to have as our Guatemalan guest this year Maria Dolores Itzep, lawyer with the Rabinal Community Legal Clinic, founded by Jesus Tecu. Maria Dolores works on both genocide cases and cases of domestic violence.

We will also hear stories, formally and informally, from returning Interns and an update from Jackie McVicar, Intern Coordinator and BTS representative in Guatemala. We are fortunate that this year Caren Weisbart, Coordinator of Internationall Human Rights Accompaniment in Guatemala, who is a former BTS Intern, can also join us.

We will further our understanding of solidarity, update our work regarding Canadian mining companies, the Rabinal Scholarship Fund and begin a process of envisioning the future of BTS work, as the Guatemalan and Canadian contexts change! As ever we will have a great fiesta Saturday night!

RE the cost ($150)Tatamagouche Centre is giving us the lowest price possible. It includes acommodation and great food, yet another reason to attend! BTS provides bursaries to those who need them, through the Silent Auction and the sale of Breaking the Silence coffee and Guatemalan crafts during the year. DO NOT STAY AWAY BECAUSE OF COSTS! BREAKING THE SILENCE IS COMMITTED TO ACCESSIBILITY FOR ALL. WE NEED YOU, SO IF YOU NEED TO ASK FOR FINANCIAL SUPPORT, PLEASE DO SO.

AGM Fundraiser We will again have a Silent Auction and Yard Sale. Start thinking now about items to donate to the Silent Auction, everything from Guatemalan goods to jams, jellies, plants, framed photos and artwork. We will also have a BTS version of a Yard Sale, only this time it will be of those beautiful Guatemalan weavings, clothing, etc. that you no longer have space for or are no longer wearing.

Registration Many thanks to Yvette Michaud for agreeing to act as Registrar again this year. We are improving on our scandalous record of last-minute registrations. When you register at the last minute, it is hard for our kitchen and office staff to plan, as well as for the AGM Plannning Ctee. So fill out the attached registration form now, and Email it to Yvette Michaud.

Looking forward to seeing you all at the AGM!


Wednesday, January 21, 2009

URGENT ACTION: Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation January 15, 2009

Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG)
Receives More Death Threats
January 15, 2009

Since 1992, the FAFG has carried out exhumations across Guatemala, digging up the remains of victims of the internal armed conflict in Guatemala, determining - when possible - cause of death and identity. Every exhumation initiates criminal proceedings to determine cause of death and who committed the crime.

Evidence recovered by the FAFG is being used in numerous criminal trials, including the two genocide cases in Guatemalan courts (that are not advancing due to the impunity of the military and powerful economic sectors, and the lack of political will from Guatemalan politicians and the international community) and the genocide case before the Spanish courts that is advancing, … slowly and painfully.

The FAFG has received threats since 2002, and the State of Guatemala has been ordered to provide security for the FAFG and its staff by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Last year, the FAFG received threats on several occasions, the last being text messages via cell phones during the month of June. Fredy and Omar are currently receiving state-sponsored security protection measures, including armed police officers at work and home.

January 8, 2009

On Thursday, 8th January 2009, Fredy Peccerelli, Executive Director of the FAFG, received an email with a copy sent to Omar Bertoni Girón, Head of the FAFG's Forensic Anthropology Department. The email contains the following message:

"Bloody bastard fredy, we are watching you fucking revolutionary your families will pay the price we are watching you and we will start with your siblings, first we will kill yani I am sending photos so you don't think it's a joke."

For the first time, the threat was accompanied by a photo taken on January 5, 2009 of a car belonging to Fredy's brother, at a gas station near their homes.

We are asking the Public Prosecutor's Office to conduct an exhaustive investigation of the threats received over the last seven years. To date, no one has been held responsible for the more than 30 direct threats made.

Click here to send a message to the Guatemalan government calling on authorities to investigate the threats against Fredy, Omar, and their families, and bring those responsible to justice, and do its utmost to protect FAFG staff and their families.
= = =
January 12, 2009

Omar Bertoni Girón, Head of the FAFG's Forensic Anthropology Laboratory, and Fredy Peccerelli, Executive Director of the FAFG, received a death threat via email:

"OK you bastards, you haven't taken us seriously. This will show you. Omar your wife looks very good in red with your daughter. We saw them today in front of the FAFG. You fucking revolutionaries won't stop until we kill you. Fredy your suit won't be of any use to you, after we kill you they will never find you. You have little time left you bastard, first your siblings then you revolutionary anthropologists. Death."

Omar Bertoni Girón is also Fredy Peccerelli's brother-in-law, married to Bianka Peccerelli. She, accompanied by their daughter, dropped off her husband at the FAFG that morning.

Two death threats received on May 19 and 22, 2008 were sent under the same name, but from a different address.

We demand that the Public Prosecutor's Office investigate the origin of the threats thoroughly and, considering the seriousness and detailed nature of this last threat, the heightening of the security provided by the State of Guatemala for the FAFG. This includes contracting an expert on cybernetic security (because the threats were received by email) and two National Police agents (to cover a 24 hour shift) for Fredy's children. (Fredy made this request personally.)

Click here to send a message to the Guatemalan government calling on authorities to investigate the threats against Fredy, Omar, and their families, and bring those responsible to justice, and do its utmost to protect FAFG staff and their families.


[Information for this Urgent Action has been taken from Rights Action. We appreciate their contribution!]


Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Happy New Year from Guatemala! Mark BTS AGM March 27-29 on your calendar

Feliz Ano Nuevo a todas y todos! Happy New Year to you all from Guatemala! Wilf and I welcomed the New Year with BTS members Lynne and Dave Duffy in Antigua. Of course there were fireworks, but also wonderful marimba bands and traditional music and dances.

On Tuesday Jan. 5th, Wilf and I set off from San Marcos with Jackie McVicar, BTS representative in Guatemala, to visit the communities of Sipakapa and San Miguel Ixtahuacan where the Goldcorp mine is located. We left San Marcos at 4:30am on a very cold morning, with frost in the hills. We traveled first to Sipakapa to meet with Mario Tema, the brother of Juan Tema who many of you met when he toured the Maritimes a few years ago. He welcomed us warmly and encouraged BTS to present a resolution once again to the Goldcorp AGM in May. We then traveled on to San Miguel Ixtahuacan, where we met with Javier de Leon. Javier invited us to the first meeting of the year of Indigenous Mayors in the Municipality, where mining and its impacts was a major topic. It as inspiring to see indigenous leaders from every town and village in the Municipality, each carrying his barra (something like a cane), a symbol of the authority given to the Indigenous Mayors by their communities. Each community chooses a new Mayor each year through a processs of consensus decison-making. That morning we also met with a with a community leader who had recently been threatened because of the stance of his organization regarding the mine. This encounter was a sobering reminder of how the presence of the mine has created social conflict. We also heard of other impacts from prostitution to water loss and water contamination.

We arrived back in Guatemala City Thursday afternoon. Friday morning Jackie, Caren Weisbart (BTS member, former Intern and human rights accompanier, now Coordinator of International Human Rights Accompaniment in Guatemala), Wilf and I set off for Rabinal, where we met up with Erin Wolfson, BTS Intern and member of the 2008 BTS delegation. Yesterday the five of us met with members of the New Hope Foundation and had a good meeting with a number of people related to the Fundacion. We had been in Rabinal in December as well, where Maria Dolores Itzep, lawyer with the Rabinal Community Legal Clinic confirmed that shecan attend the AGM at the end of March to share the ongoing work regarding the genocide cases.

Wilf and I also had the good fortune to spend a few hours with one of BTS' oldest friends, Josefina Martinez of the Kaqchikel Presbytery. Josefina was BTS' first guest from Guatemala in 1990, even before we sent delegations to Guatemala. She sends warm greetings to all of you who have connected with her. I look forward to a meeting with the Presbytery women's groups and teachers Eddy and Roaldo this Thursday.

Finally I want to say what a privilege it has been for Wilf and I to see with our own eyes the relationships that Jackie has built with all of our partners. We are thankful for Jackie's commitment, generosity and insights. She walks the talk!

I close by encouraging you all to mark on yoiur calendars now the BTS Annual Gathering Friday, March 27th, 7pm to Sunday, March 29th, 1pm. We are holding our Annual Gathering earlier this year because our terrific Interns (Becky MacMillan - I'jatz and IMEP, Colin Gusikoski - the Rabinal Community Legal Clinic, Erin Wolfson - the New Hope Foundation, Patrick Chasse - Kaqchikel Presbytery) are coming home earlier than in other years, having left NS in early Sept. Having met with Maria Dolores Itzep, we know that she will bring a passionate and inspiring message to us all. Not to mention that it will be great to have both Jackie McVicar and Caren Weisbart with us to share their experiences and insights in Guatemala! We also look forward to a BTS showing of former Intern Hans Olson's new documentary on the Kaqchikel Presbytery women's groups, which he produced for Sakharini, a small NGO that Hans connected with the Kaqchikel Presbytery a few years ago. Wonderful as it is to have such terrific resources persons with us, it is equally important to have your participation, as we recommit ourselves to solidarity with Guatemala and begin to think afresh about who BTS is and what we should be about in the coming months and years!

Abrazos, hugs to each of you.